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The phantom hitch-hiker is widely held to be an urban myth. It is a story told by a friend of a friend with no basis in fact. Or is it ....? Dave Thomas recounted his experience with the road ghost of Blue Bell Hill (Kent, UK)

The Ghost of Blue Bell Hill by David L. Thomas

[This account first appeared in ANOMALY Number 19] (see also here)

The phantom hitch-hiker story is told all over the world and for many people it has its roots embedded in folklore. Although the whole phenomenon of phantom hitch-hikers may be considered to be no older than the advent of the motor car, this is not necessarily so. An early hitch-hiker report by Joan Petri Klint, a Swedish author, tells of a girl who, in 1602, asked for a ride. When the party she was travelling with stopped to rest the horses, the girl gave a prophesy and then promptly disappeared. It is thus quite possible that the phantom hitch-hiker is a ghostly classic, being an old and much repeated tale, possibly representing a modern version of an antique theme. It is a tale told in homes and pubs for the sake of entertainment. To gain the maximum impact it is told as a 'true' tale.

These 'road' ghosts are quite distinct from other types of apparition. The story is usually one that could be true but often happened to a friend of a friend. On closer scrutiny it generally does not stand up to examination. The tale differs depending on the cultural background against which it is set. It is thought that the modern versions of these stories originated in the 1920s. Not every case contains a car, but vehicles have been involved in 76 out of 79 cases. In England the ghost is seen as the victim of a tragic accident but in other countries may be viewed as a demon, god, witch, fairy or prophet. For example, in Malaya the people believe in the Langsuyar, a vampire who frequents remote stretches of road disguised as a beautiful woman. After obtaining a lift and assaulting its victim it flies off into the air uttering blood-curdling screams.

Some people can accept the theory that the hitch-hikers are part of folklore, while others believe they are real and solid. Sometimes these reports cannot be traced to an original real incident. Such tales are the backbone of regional folklore, acquiring local identities and lending support to local traditions. By being brought up to date and related to real places and people, these tales are given a new lease of life and once again sent on their way. Such traditional supernatural stories tend to conform to set rules. The basic forms of the hitch-hiker were identified by researchers Beardsley and Hankey as four distinct types: the address-giving ghost; the prophesy-giving ghost; the ghost borrowing or leaving an article of clothing; the goddess or identifiable local deity.

The Hitch-Hiker

Perhaps we should first define the phantom hitch-hiker as a person of either sex who hitches a lift, sometimes talking to the driver, sometimes not. The Spectral Jaywalker is somewhat different as it is a ghost who prefers to walk on or alongside the road, sometimes just appearing in the headlights. Sometimes the jaywalker becomes a victim, as in the Blue Bell Hill case, where the ghost walks across the road and into the path of an on-coming vehicle to be unavoidably run over by some poor unsuspecting motorist, leaving no trace of a body. The classic form of the hitch-hiker tale features a young girl or boy hitching a lift, who then disappears from the locked car just before the requested destination is reached. In shock, the driver asks someone at the destination about the young person, only to be told that he or she died a few years earlier and that this is the anniversary of their death. There is sometimes an item of clothing involved, like a scarf being left behind in the car or a jacket offered to a freezing girl.

An ASSAP member from Switzerland sent me a report concerning an older woman, dressed all in white, who stands on the hard shoulder (this is forbidden in Switzerland). The location is the N2 near the entrance to a long tunnel called Belchentunnel. It appears that when a driver offers this woman a lift she accepts, but just to go to the other side of the tunnel. On occasions she looks pale and ill and during the drive the woman says that she does not feel too well and that something 'terrible' will happen. When the driver asks her what she means she immediately vanishes from the car.

Another interesting case is that of a carpet fitter who in October 1979 stopped near a Bedfordshire village and offered a man a lift in his car. Thinking little of the quietness of his passenger, he decided, after several minutes, to enter into conversation with the man. When he turned round to offer his passenger a cigarette, there was no one there. Both the police and press were convinced the man had told what he believed to be the truth.

Another case is that of Uniondale, South Africa, where a corporal travelling on his motorbike to see his girlfriend, at about 9.35pm on 31 March 1978, picked up a brunette hitch-hiker. He placed his spare crash helmet on her head and gave her a spare plug to his transistor radio and off they set. After about ten miles the corporal felt an odd bumping sensation; his bike slithered slightly and he thought he had a flat tyre. What had happened was that he had lost his passenger. He turned the bike round and had gone back the way he came several kilometres when he encountered the same bumping sensation again and found that the spare helmet had now returned, minus passenger, and was fastened to the luggage rack and the spare earphone had appeared - in his other ear.

The whole subject of phantom hitch-hikers is a fascinating one, and several researchers are looking into the most active case, which happens to be that of Blue Bell Hill in Kent. One of the most interesting books written about such phenomena to date is that produced by ASSAP in 1984 in its 'Evidence For' series and written by Michael Goss, who has now moved on to other areas of investigation.

Blue Bell Hill

There were ruins of a Roman temple on Blue Bell Hill, but the Romans were not the first people to call the hill their home, as the ancient burial chambers of Kits Coty and Coldrum testify. In 455 the hillside rang with the cries of battle as Vortimer, King of the Britons, fought the Saxons who were led by the mercenaries Hengist and Horsa. We are told that the battle raged on all day and in the final reckoning Vortimer lay dead, as did Horsa. It is reported that Vortimer was buried somewhere on the hill near to Kits Coty House and that at certain times the cries of battle can still be heard. Also nearby is the King-making or White Horse Stone, an important and ancient site that marked the spot where the Kings of Kent were crowned, so legend would have it.

The recent history of the haunting of the Maidstone - Rochester Road (A229) over Blue Bell Hill probably begins with the terrible crash of 19 November 1965, but recent reports may have provided us with some earlier reports which we are still investigating. On a Friday evening a Ford Cortina was heading towards Maidstone with four young women on board. S, an Australian-born shorthand typist was to be married the next day and was driving the other girls to the Running Horse pub, Maidstone, in the hope of meeting some of their boyfriends. J was in the front passenger seat and P and G were in the back. It was never decided what caused the accident, no blame was ever attributed to anyone, but as the Cortina rounded a bend on what is now the Old Road it collided with a Jaguar that was coming up the hill.

J died almost at once, followed by P an hour later in Maidstone and S the following Wednesday. G was hospitalised for over four months but survived. A photographer from the Maidstone Gazette, Mike Pollard, was on his way home when he encountered the carnage and he took some harrowing pictures of the crash scene.

It was only one year before reports of a ghost, hitching a lift from the hill into Maidstone, became widely known. Blind switchboard operator Tom Harber (now deceased) was reported in September 1968 to be a collector of information about these reports, but he was frustrated when nothing substantial could be obtained. I have managed to speak with members of J's family, who confirm that drivers had turned up at the Maidstone home of one of the girls enquiring after a female passenger they had just given a lift to. Reports of this are sketchy, as some featured Maidstone while others reportedly occurred in Rochester.

There were only odd mentions of the Ghost of Blue Bell Hill (GBBH) over the next few years, with nothing significant until 1974, when events were to mark a change in the phenomenon. A Rochester man, MG, was driving home in the early hours of Saturday morning when he knocked down a young girl who he thought may have been about ten years old. Distraught, he ran back and picked up the girl who was bruised and crying for her mother. Laying the girl by the side of the road, he tried to flag down passing motorists. When no one would stop, he covered her in his car blanket and dashed to the nearest police station for help. When the police arrived at the scene a few minutes later the girl had gone, though the blanket remained. At first light a search was conducted in the area with dogs, but nothing was ever found.

The Kent Messenger marked the occasion by putting together all the ghost stories to date in an article by Nigel Nelson called 'Drivers beware the Phantom on the Hill'. The next encounter was reported in an article in the Evening Post on Tuesday, 30 August 1977, when two men reported seeing a blond woman in a white evening dress in a slightly dishevelled state waiting as if for a lift. They were from Welling and reportedly had no knowledge of the hill's unusual history.

All was fairly quiet in the period between 1977 and November 1992, when the encounter by Mr S on 10 November marked another turn in the history of the GBBH. Mr S was driving home down Blue Bell Hill when he suddenly saw a young girl run out from the central reservation in front of him. The amazing thing was that the girl looked Mr S 'right in the eye' before disappearing beneath the bonnet of his car. Mr S skidded to a halt just by the Aylesford turn-off and searched for the body. He became frantic when he could not find it. He went to Maidstone Police Station to report what had happened and was told of the GBBH. No body was ever found. This incident was almost duplicated a few weeks later.

Yet another event was reported in Kent Today on 8 January 1993 and involved the M family. While they were driving home at about 12.45am up the Old Chatham Road, they saw what they believed to be a haggard old woman walking very slowly across the road in front of them. As it was a foggy night they were not going fast, and as they approached the figure it turned and hissed at them and they felt an overwhelming sense of evil. As Mr M finally regained control of himself to speed away, the whole family noticed that the figure was waving a bundle of sticks after them. I found this story particularly incredible, but it was later to be confirmed by the policeman they contacted and who spent the whole of that night trying to calm the family down. This was not the only sighting of this same apparition, as my source confirmed that similar reports had been made by other motorists. A recent report involved a sighting of a 'puma-like' creature walking down the bridleway by the side of Kits Coty House.

The Press

From the 1965 crash onwards reports about the GBBH have been somewhat inaccurate. This is perhaps due to the reporters' lack of understanding of things paranormal, mixed with a desire to produce a story they think the public will relish. This is most vexing to the investigator who frequently uses newspaper reports as a starting point for an investigation. Printed information can be seriously inaccurate and, if investigators do not dig deep or double check their work, their credibility could be damaged. For instance, the thing that upsets me, other local investigators and surviving relatives is the habit of reproducing a picture of J every time someone sees a ghost on the hill. If they ever thought to question the witnesses they would find out that the 'ghost' seen looks nothing like J.

ASSAP conducted a vigil at the site in 1993 with no activity reported. We used image- intensifying equipment and stationed ourselves by Kits Coty and also at the top of the hill. It was a bitterly cold night, and the police were obviously aware of the anniversary of the accident because there were unusual numbers of patrol cars in evidence. We were actually stopped and questioned even though we had previously informed them of our intentions. Some people had even come from Manchester just to sit on the hill in the hope of seeing something.

Conclusions?

The first problem we encounter when trying to make sense of this fascinating case is that, by the nature of the phenomena, we are left with no physical evidence. People who encounter the GBBH have no doubts that they have encountered something solid and real, and yet it cannot be denied that the roots and history of the 'hitch-hiker' stories are entwined in folklore. If you talk to someone in Maidstone or the surrounding areas, they always know of someone who knows someone who has had an experience on the hill. In this case we have an uneasy blend of fact and fiction which has evolved from an original report which could have been fabricated and elaborated with time. It is also likely that the unfortunate crash of 1965 became the focus for the romantic and dramatic desires of the folklore tradition. Violent, accidental death fulfils a deep-rooted need in the ghost tradition.

There is also the possibility that hallucination may be partly to blame for some of the reported phenomena. The very act of driving for any distance brings a significant alteration to a person's normal consciousness to such an extent that it is possible to self-induce a hallucination. Driving by night may also induce a form of sensory deprivation which could increase the chance of hallucination. With haunting cases perhaps there is some sort of energy that interacts with a person to produce an image form, guided by the individual's belief structures. To support this we note that these 'hitch-hikers' are able to open doors and hold a conversation, which is not what you would expect from a ghost. The hitch-hiker takes on the duty of a spiritual guardian and draws attention to its superior, non-human powers by the ability to disappear, and thereby becomes a messenger of our own pessimistic future.

Each report seems as unusual as the last, and yet we can sympathise with the victim, who is by now the poor driver of the car. The police treat the whole thing in a low key fashion but are very aware of the history of the hill and sympathetic to anyone who has had a disturbing encounter. There can be no doubt that folklore has its hand in this phenomenon, but to what extent we do not fully know - at present. The mystery continues.